Omer Arbel, the creative director of West Coast lighting firm, Bocci, has a very special sensitivity to light. He perceives light as something tangible, and liquid. “Since I was young, I always regarded light as having a volumetric quality, light appears like liquid and rooms are like containers that define the liquid, like bottles,” explains Arbel. “When I describe one kind of sunlight, most people don’t know what I am talking about.”
The Olympic medals for the 2010 Vancouver Game designer started his career with apprenticeships at Miralles Tagliabue Architects and the venerable firm of Patkau Architects. In 2005, Arbel founded Omer Arbel Office (AOA), a multidisciplinary design studio that blurs the boundaries between the fields of building, industrial design, and materials research. Simultaneously, he launched Bocci; the firm’s trademark handmade glass orb fixtures are ubiquitous in chic interiors and have garnered international recognition.
“Architecture and design don’t really have a boundary for me. The only thing that really changes is the scale and socio political context, the delivery method and our relationship changes, but the way we think about the project is exactly the same. The fabrication process and material discovery is just bigger and much more complex, but at the core we are doing exactly the same thing.”
Arbel’s been able to cherry pick the architectural projects that engage him, sometimes working on three at a time, other times going six months without a project, so he can focus solely on Bocci. “Architecture has a more revolutionary potential, it affects people’s lives and changes the city in a more profound way, but’s it a much lengthier and more painful process,” he explains.
“From a lifestyle perspective I enjoy industrial design more but on existential level I feel architecture is more important. If I was only an architect, I think I would be more miserable, this is a good balance for me.”
Arbel’s Project for Victoria and Albert Museum
The crowning achievement for the 38-year-old was his installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2014. Arbel’s 30-metre-tall light sculpture consisted of 280 multicolour glass pendant lamps, suspended by a tangle of copper wires.
“I have admired and respected the Victoria and Albert as a pre-eminent cultural institution that chronicles the history of design and craft all my life. To have an ambitious installation piece in such an important place is a massive watershed on a professional and personal level that really legitimized our methodology and unconventional approach to the powers that be.“
That unconventional approach Arbel refers to is his exploration process. “Four years ago we shifted to a kind of material discovery, exploring the way a material behaves and then we start applying parameters, the thought process or engineering use. We don’t even know what it will be like when it’s finished, whether it will be a light, a sculpture, a manufacturing technique or construction method.”
Imbuing Each Piece with Its Own Character
One thing that drives Arbel’s vision is the idea of each object having a sacred relationship with the consumer, something that has waned in an era of mass production and mass consumption. When he creates his lights for Bocci, he tries to imbue each piece with its own unique character.
“People have lost their regard for the power — or almost sacred nature — of an object. I want them to regain the respect for the object that we have lost. We should be very deliberate about the objects we choose. If we regard them as companions of our lives, then our world becomes richer.” As an example, Arbel describes the simile of going to McDonald’s for dinner, versus growing your own vegetables and carefully selecting a recipe. ”Your senses become heightened because so much care is associated with your meal. It just tastes better.”
In January 2015, Arbel unveiled innovative blown-glass objects in Paris, made with ceramic fabric used to insulate engine parts that can be heated up to 3000 degrees celsius. “It’s amazing, you can sew it or mould it, like upholstery. We make these fabric forms and then blow glass into it. Inevitably that shape is unique, you get these forms that are made of glass yet they have the texture of the fabric, a perfect natural diffuser.”
This new method is a satisfying way to sculpt light in an entirely original way. “I try to focus on the particular rather than the universal, to celebrate the specificity of the object. Create something that’s different than every other one ever made, so therefore maybe it’s worthy of a deeper commitment.”
Photography by Gwenael Lewis; Milos Tosic